What a mess in Texas.
When 23-year-old college student Micah Hurd posted an online petition last month asking the White House to allow the Lone Star State to secede, nearly 120,000 people rallied behind him — making it the most popular petition in the 16 months that the Obama administration has been soliciting them.
But one group was not so supportive: Hurd’s superiors in the 4th Regiment of the Texas State Guard, a force of unarmed volunteers who help in cases of natural disaster or other emergencies in the state.
“Any mention of secession had better happen on a civilian venue, as private citizens registering an opinion,” chided regiment commander Howard Palmer in an e-mail to colleagues on Nov. 14, five days after Hurd posted his petition. “It’s only talk, and rather ignorant talk at that. If you’ve already done something to call attention to yourself or our regiment in this matter, make it go away.”
Hurd, who had been featured in several news articles, was instructed to stop speaking with reporters, his father, Patrick Hurd, said in an interview. The younger Hurd, who declined to comment for this article, was questioned about his motives and asked to sign an affidavit swearing that the State Guard was not involved, his father said.
“He was told the guard is conducting the investigation to ensure that the guard has not in any way been implicated in the petition or talk of seceding,” said Patrick Hurd, a pastor in Weatherford, Tex., who added that his son believes his actions are protected under the First Amendment.
The friction between Micah Hurd and his superiors comes as the secession movement has gained national headlines in the wake of President Obama’s reelection last month. The White House’s “We the People” petition Web site has been flooded with secession petitions from all 50 states, attracting more than 1 million total signatories.
Eight petitions have reached the 25,000-signature threshold that guarantees a response from the White House. Administration officials said that while they do not support secession, they will formally respond to the petitioners in the next few weeks.
The movement has quickly become a form of political protest for those who did not support Obama. The issue is particularly sensitive in Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry (R) was once an aspiring challenger to Obama. During a tea party rally in 2009, Perry appeared to suggest that secession was an option.
Asked last month about Hurd’s petition, Perry press secretary Catherine Frazier told the Dallas Morning News that the governor “believes in the greatness of our union and nothing should be done to change it.” She added, however, that Perry “also shares the frustrations many Americans have with our federal government.”
Legal experts said members of the U.S. military have limited free-speech rights under certain circumstances. This spring, the Marine Corps discharged Sgt. Gary Stein after he criticized Obama on Facebook and other Web sites.
But Hurd falls under different rules because his unit is not on federal duty, said Gary Solis, a military law expert and adjunct professor at Georgetown University.
“An individual who is in a state guard that has not been federalized, in my opinion, I don’t believe he can be silenced,” Solis said. “It appears this guy should be free to say whatever he wants without fear of persecution or prosecution.”
Hurd, who served in the Marines for several years, has left the military and is now a freshman at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he studies engineering. He is married and has an infant son.
In an interview with the campus newspaper, the Shorthorn, Hurd said he was surprised by the popularity of his petition but said it was not intended as an anti-Obama document.
Allowing Texas to secede would “protect it’s citizens’ standard of living and re-secure their rights and liberties in accordance with the original ideas and beliefs of our founding fathers,” Hurd wrote.
The trouble started when he told his superiors at the State Guard what he had done.
The guard is a 2,300-member volunteer unit of the Texas Military Forces, which is operated by Perry’s office. State Guard members receive an annual stipend of $120, said Amy Cook, a Texas Military Forces spokeswoman.
On Nov. 14, a day after Perry had weighed in, Paul Watkins, the State Guard’s Army chief of staff, sent an e-mail to colleagues asking them to make clear to their units that “we do not want anyone from the TXSG representing us in any conversation they have on the topic.”
On Nov. 20, Gary Harvel, head of the Quick Response Team, a subunit to which Hurd is assigned, sent a longer e-mail asking members to refrain from political speech.
Cook said her office has no problems with Hurd’s actions and was not aware that the State Guard had asked him to stop talking to reporters and to sign an affidavit.
“That would not be appropriate,” she said.
On Thursday, after The Washington Post made inquiries, Hurd received an e-mail from a superior informing him that he would no longer be asked to sign the affidavit.
Patrick Hurd said that his son’s commitment to the guard has not waned and that he attended the guard’s regularly scheduled training session this weekend.